‘A nice welcome for the forgotten’
State Vietnam veterans visit D.C. with Honor Flight
WASHINGTON - They came because they wanted to visit their buddies. They wanted to see the names of men forever 19 or 20, men who never aged or grew gray or started families or got on with the rest of their lives after serving their country.
They came to experience the camaraderie only people who have served in combat, no matter how many decades ago, feel when they come together. And though they weren’t expecting it — they also received the heroes’ welcome veterans of other wars had gotten but was cruelly denied to many of them.
A group of 80 Vietnam veterans traveled to Washington, D.C., Saturday on the first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight dedicated to men and women who served during that conflict.
Stewart Johnson came to visit Johnnie Vaught Jr. John Phelan wanted to see Bob Gasko. Ted Peller Jr. was paying his respects to Danny Sikorski. Halbert Algee stopped to see Murphy Pleasant Jr.
Johnson, 68, a retired Milwaukee police officer, planned to leave a medal awarded to him for saving someone’s life in Vietnam. His daughter, Kelly Becker, encouraged him to instead take a picture of his medal and leave that at the memorial at the spot where Vaught’s name is listed among 58,000 others who lost their lives in Vietnam.
Two days after Vaught found out in a letter that he was going to be a father, he was killed during a patrol in September 1968, recalled Johnson. Vaught saved Johnson’s life.
“He pushed me away as the bullets started flying,” said Johnson, a Marine who wore a hat identifying him as a Purple Heart recipient for shrapnel injuries from a B40 rocket-propelled grenade.
He carried the photo of his medal and set it on the ground at the panel with his friend’s name but didn’t linger — it was too emotional for him. Becker stayed behind to make a rubbing of Vaught’s name as a keepsake for her father.
All Honor Flights are emotional for veterans spending a day visiting monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., and it was for the Vietnam vets on Saturday who are getting their turn to travel on the free trip now that the ranks of World War II and Korean War veterans are rapidly dwindling.
Port Washington-based Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, which takes mostly veterans from southeastern Wisconsin on half
a dozen trips to the nation’s capital each year, announced this summer it was transitioning to Vietnam veterans. World War II and Korea veterans will still get priority, but the charity’s board of directors “knew we’d get to this point some day,” said Stars and Stripes Honor Flight President Paula Nelson.
All veterans who served during the Vietnam era, not just those who served in the country, are eligible.
“I think the (Vietnam veterans) have been very patient. They’ve seen what we’ve done with the World War II and Korean War vets,” Nelson said.
After the announcement, applications from Vietnam War-era folks began flooding in — now nearing around 1,000. On Saturday, in addition to the 80 Vietnam veterans, a second plane carried 56 Korean War veterans and 15 from World War II, ranging in age from 61 to 97, including two women.
When the planes took off from Milwaukee early Saturday, airport fire trucks saluted the veterans with water cannons and two warbird planes escorted the Delta airliners. On arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport, they were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers, Scouts, a high school band playing patriotic music and folks holding signs, “Thank You For Your Service” and “God Bless You.”
Peller, 70, of Nashotah, served in the Air Force in Vietnam in 1969-’70. He fondly remembers Sikorski who lived in his neighborhood, the brother of Peller’s then-girlfriend. Sikorski was featured in David Maraniss’ book on Vietnam “They Marched Into Sunlight.”
When Peller was coming home from Pulaski High School in Milwaukee one day he got beat up, and not wanting his parents to see him, went to Sikorski’s home to get cleaned up. Sikorski was upset to hear Peller had been beaten and he ran out and tracked down the guys who did it.
“He was that kind of a guy. Kind of like a Gentle Ben,” said Peller.
Peller was seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. for the first time and was bowled over by the experience.
“Getting off the plane, walking down the hallway (at the airport in D.C.) — wow. You keep things pent up for so long,” Peller said as he slowly walked through the Pentagon memorial and pondered the loss of life on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’ve always wanted to come here. Always found a reason not to come: money, kids, work, college. I can’t say enough about the kindness and generosity of the Honor Flight organization,” said Peller.
As veterans and their guardians drew near the V-shaped memorial dedicated to the men and women killed in Vietnam, many became silent, lost in their thoughts. Some, like Johnson, brought items to leave behind. Some wept. Some saluted.
Algee, 70, of Milwaukee who served in the Army in Vietnam, 1968’70,
got a letter from his folks telling him the news about the death of Pleasant, a childhood friend and North Division High School classmate.
As Algee finished darkening a white sheet of paper with his friend’s name in pencil he said, “I knew somebody who served and gave his all. It’s emotional.”
Phelan, 68, of Greenfield, looked for the names of four people including his wife’s cousin, a high school classmate and Gasko, who deployed to Vietnam with Phelan. Gasko was killed a day after he got his assignment upon arriving in Vietnam.
Phelan recently underwent treatment for lung and throat cancer and carried an oxygen tank as he toured memorials Saturday. He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, leaving the war-torn country at noon on Christmas Eve, landing in California on the same day and time, courtesy of the international date line, and then catching a 9 a.m. flight home to Milwaukee on Christmas Day.
Phelan vividly recalls leaving 101-degree heat in Vietnam, landing in 83-degree heat in California and arriving in cold Wisconsin.
“It was 13 below in Milwaukee. And I haven’t warmed up since,” said Phelan.
Michael Bernier, 69, of Theresa served in both the Navy and Army in two tours of duty in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971. Several of his buddies are named on the black granite wall.
“This day more than ever is very emotional for me,” said Bernier. “It’s outstanding, very inspirational. A nice welcome for the forgotten.”
Anne Fritsch also
knows people on the wall, though she doesn’t remember all the names of the men she treated as an Army physical therapist who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Fritsch, 90, of Wauwatosa joined the Army medical corps in 1951 when five of her Mount Mary College classmates told her how much fun they were having in the military.
She treated Korean War amputees and polio victims at a Battle Creek, Mich., military hospital. In 1968, she spent a year at the 8th Army Field Hospital in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Many of the men she treated had lost limbs from land mines or were suffering from fragmentation wounds.
“We’d get them in the morning and we had them on their feet by the end of the afternoon. If we got them up right away and started their exercises, they really didn’t have time to think of themselves as disabled and they suffered less phantom pain,” said Fritsch.
She returned to Vietnam in 1971, traveling throughout the country to teach basic physical therapy techniques to Vietnamese military medics. Fritsch had never applied for an Honor Flight spot because she didn’t want to take another veteran’s place, she said, but finally submitted her application.
As she visited the Air Force Memorial, changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other memorials, she was greeted like a rock star, as were the other veterans.
“I think every man is saying the same thing — why didn’t we have this when we came home?” said Fritsch.
Halbert Algee, 70, of Milwaukee stands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall rubbing the name of Murphy Pleasant Jr., a childhood friend and North Division High School classmate killed in Vietnam in 1969. Algee served in the Army in Vietnam 1968-’70 and traveled to the wall in Washington, D.C., with a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Saturday. See more photos at jsonline.com/news.
Ken Kollatz, 68, of New Berlin greets well-wishers at Washington Dulles International Airport Saturday morning after getting off a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight from Milwaukee. The Port Washington-based Honor Flight announced last summer that it was transitioning from World War II and Korean War veterans to Vietnam veterans for its free trips to the nation’s capital.
Stewart Johnson, a retired Milwaukee police officer, took a picture of a medal he received in Vietnam for saving someone's life to place beneath the name of a fallen buddy at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., during a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.